A group that claims to have helped police across the county make hundreds of arrests of people trying to solicit children for sex recently targeted Maine in a sting.
However, Maine State Police initially declined to use the evidence the group gathered, leading to social media outrage and bringing attention to the way those groups operate.
These types of vigilante groups that do their own investigations to try to catch people soliciting children may not follow all the laws necessary for evidence to make it to court. At the very least, it adds another layer to a police investigation, law enforcement officials say, as they have to ensure the group operated by the necessary standards.
“The last thing that we ever want to do is take this type of information and lose it in court on a technicality because now we haven’t gotten justice for the victim,” Holden police Lt. Andy Whitehouse said. “Or we may have charged somebody that shouldn’t have been charged.”
The Maine man recently targeted by one of the vigilante groups, Predator Poachers, tried to solicit a 13-year-old girl, but the girl was actually a member of the group, founder Alex Rosen said. The man repeatedly asks the girl for nude pictures, sends sexual messages and admits to being addicted to children, messages reviewed by the Bangor Daily News show.
Whitehouse has been doing investigations into child abuse and exploitation for 22 years. He did not know specific details of the Predator Poachers case, but spoke generally about the various groups nationwide.
“Anytime that people take the law into their own hands, you always have to worry about the legality of what they’re doing and if they’re following the rules of the game,” Whitehouse said.
Penobscot County District Attorney Chris Almy said he would need to see evidence before he could decide if it was worthy of court.
“This is a less than conventional method of investigation and I have concerns,” Almy said.
Maine State Police initially declined evidence gathered by the group. Rosen’s social media posts about the interactions racked up nearly 3 million views. Comments on the state police’s social media posts were filled with people questioning the police’s decision to not accept the evidence and saying the police must be pedophiles.
There is no way to confirm the tactics the group used conform with investigatory standards, state police said. Those types of groups use tactics that are “at best questionable and at worst coercive.”
After Predator Poachers left Maine and posted about the case on social media, state police said they will take the evidence the group gathered, as long as all devices used in the investigation are turned over to police, Rosen said. The group is providing the devices.
Police are gathering and reviewing any information provided, as they do in any investigation, and will review the evidence from Predator Poachers, Maine State Police spokesperson Shannon Moss said.
The group researches the laws in each state before they start the investigation to ensure what they do complies, Rosen said. They make sure to never go overboard and never entice the person.
“There are groups out there that don’t do it the right way, just like there are corrupt [police departments] out there that don’t do it the right way,” Rosen said.
Seeing the full chat history is important to make sure everything is up to par, Whitehouse said. He’d want to know what the motivations of the people in the group are, as well as if they would make good witnesses if they’re called to testify.
Rosen said he’s testified numerous times in courts across the nation. He said the Houston-based group has helped police make around 200 arrests since he founded the group in 2019.
“I understand why [the groups] do what they do, and these crimes are horrible crimes,” Whitehouse said. “We also have to make sure we’re doing everything legally correct so that we have good, solid cases and good, solid convictions.”
When police pose as children online, they follow very specific guidelines and are very careful to make sure they do not somehow make the person commit a crime, Whitehouse said. For example, an officer posing as a young girl can’t ask to meet up or make other suggestions. The person on the other end has to propose taking actions.
Once something is suggested, police can play along, but they have to do so carefully, Whitehouse said.
“You can’t suggest the crime to them and have them commit the crime because they’re answering you,” he said. “All the criminal stuff has to be on the defendant’s side of things.”
Predator Poachers did assist with the arrest of a man in Lincoln County in February 2023. He is now on the sex offender registry for 10 years. Someone with the group reached out to dispatch and Boothbay Harbor police took a report, gathered information and passed it along to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Boothbay Harbor police Chief Doug Snyder said.
When outside groups are involved, it adds another layer of work for police because they also have to investigate that group to make sure everything is above board, Whitehouse said.
Another concern is that a group may accidentally tip off a suspect, giving the person time to get rid of evidence before police can investigate, cause physical harm to a victim or kill themselves, Whitehouse said.
“At the end of the day, what we really want is we want our victims to be safe and we want justice for our victims,” Whitehouse said. “But we also have to respect the rights of the accused and make sure that we’re doing good, thorough investigations. Civilians don’t have that experience or training to do that.”
More articles from the BDN